ARTEMOVSK, UKRAINE — In far eastern Ukraine near the Russian border, pro-Russian activists have set up protest camps and checkpoints to monitor Ukrainian government troop movements and to try to protect weapons stockpiles.
On the outskirts of Artemovsk in the far east of Ukraine, a group of pro-Russian activists has set up a protest camp and checkpoint outside what looks like a salt mine. But all is not as it seems. Local people say it’s common knowledge that 150 meters under this facility is a top secret Soviet-era military base, which still houses to an enormous stockpile of weapons.
The protesters say they are here to stop this arsenal from falling into the hands of what they see as the new fascist government in Kyiv.
“We don't want those guys from right sector and other extremists to get these weapons; that is why we’re here. This is a peaceful demonstration,” said retired steel worker Alexander Malinovsky.
Irina Popova, a local government deputy, says she’s here because she fears the current crisis could be the start of a civil war between eastern and western Ukraine.
“Kyiv doesn’t listen to us, the West doesn't listen to us, no one listens to us," she said. "And what will happen in this situation when people are so opposed to each other? What will happen? Can anyone tell me? I can’t guarantee that everything will be quiet,” said Popova.
The protesters have set up tents, a field kitchen, fires and even a makeshift hospital. But beneath the picnic atmosphere lies paranoia and a great deal of anti-Western sentiment.
There are Ukrainians here, but also several men in dark glasses and newer clothes who shied away from the cameras and described themselves as ‘guests’.
On highways throughout this area, more camps like this one have been set up to monitor Ukrainian military movements.
Passing cars honk their horns in support and there are piles of tires that the activists say they will set fire to and use to block the road if government tanks try to pass through.
“We are here to collect information, if we see something strange we will let people know,” said Malinovsky, the retired coal miner.
The protesters say they are peaceful, but bats and hatchets could always be seen near at hand.
Whether these camps are truly homegrown or are receiving support from Moscow is unclear, but as protests rocked Donetsk again this weekend, they are certainly a symptom of the ongoing clash between opposing historical forces in this region.